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Berenice

First Published 3 October 2012, Last Updated 3 October 2012

Oh, that Anne-Marie Duff could grace the stage in every production I ever see. I suspect I would never tire of the award-winning actress.

Returning to the Donmar Warehouse for the first time since 2005’s Days Of Wine And Roses, she plays the title role in Alan Hollinghurst’s new version of Racine’s Berenice. The role finds her first ebullient and inflated with love as the Queen on the precipice of becoming Empress of Rome as she prepares to marry her lover of five years, now Emperor Titus, but then fearsome when enraged as her happiness slips through her fingers like the sand that gently falls on the stage at the production’s opening and closing.

You can’t help but feel for her. A future that looked rosier than an English garden in bloom is cruelly whipped away when Stephen Campbell Moore’s torn Titus is reminded by devilish advocate Paulinus – a manipulative Malcolm Tucker the toga years in the hands of Nigel Cooke – that Rome has a rule about brides from beyond its boundaries and the populace would look on the proposed nuptials with more venom than one of Cleopatra’s peckish pets.

Like a parent teasing a young child, hope continues being offered then snatched away before anyone can get a solid grasp of it, least of all Dominic Rowan’s Antiochus close friend to both Emperor and Queen – who he has silently loved for years – whose eyes pour with pain for most of the play.

Don’t get me wrong, Josie Rourke’s tight production is not 100 minutes of weeping, wailing and wondering how long after the run’s end it will be before the performers are totally sand-free. If anything, anger and despair are the dominant emotions as honour and duty vie with love and fate for control over the lives of Racine’s characters.

While the translation is a new one by Hollinghurst, the Man Booker Prize-winner’s text feels centuries old, such is the timbre and texture of the language. While the script and costume feels distinctly aged, Lucy Osborne’s sandy set, with its Escher-esque suspended staircase providing a fantastical ceiling, has the scent of something far more timeless.

It’s fitting, of course, as the play’s nagging sense of predestination supersedes time, as do questions of loyalty, honour and love. It would probably be a victory for over-exaggeration to describe Duff’s performance as timeless, but time and again she seems fated to prove herself one of our finest actresses.

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